Building more roads won't cure Africa's poverty - but it will worsen global warming
Ian Roberts and Mayer Hillman
Guardian Unlimited -- According to Tony Blair and the report of the Commission for Africa, what Africa needs most is more roads. More important than healthcare, HIV prevention, security or better governance, road building will jump-start the stalled economy of a continent that has been mired in misery for decades.
The commission's diagnosis is simple. Africa is poor as its economy has not grown. Improving its transport infrastructure would make its goods cheaper, allowing it to break into world markets and trade its way out of poverty. Of the $75bn needed to implement the commission's recommendations, 27% would be spent on infrastructure, mainly for transport, compared with 13% on HIV and Aids, and 10% on education.
If road building is posited as the solution to African poverty, we have learned nothing from history. For the past two centuries, Africa's roads have led to its impoverishment. Its earliest export was the indigenous population consigned as slaves to the Americas. The trade ended in the 1860s and was succeeded by a new wave of exploitation. European traders realised they could use Africa's cheap labour to extract its abundant minerals and grow cash crops to export to Europe. To this end, Europe had to control Africa, and so the colonial invasion began.
By 1900 conquest was complete. African labour was now used to create wealth from Africa's resources for the benefit of Europe. In his economic history of Africa, Walter Rodney describes how its transport infrastructure was built to that end: "Means of communication were not constructed in the colonial period so that Africans could visit their friends. Nor were they laid down to facilitate internal trade in African commodities. There were no roads connecting different colonies or different parts of the same colony to meet Africa's needs and development. All roads and railways led down to the sea. They were built to extract gold or cotton and to make business possible for the trading companies and for white settlers."
The improved transport system enabled foreign companies to make profits, but the companies preferred to fund the costs of construction through foreign loans, thereby putting in place the foundations of African debt.
After the demise of colonialism in the second half of the 20th century, the haemorrhage of African wealth continued. Africa was locked into a global economic system rigged by the rich countries. Trade barriers ensured that Africa was denied its share of the value added in the manufacturing process - not least because the commodity market was controlled by foreign companies, resulting in low prices for African exports but high prices for imports. Africa was locked into exporting more and more for less and less; its transport infrastructure proved inadequate and so its dependence on loans remained. Currently, transport accounts for more than 25% of World Bank lending to sub-Saharan Africa, around $5,367m in 2005. Most of this is for building roads.
We are now expected to believe that if Africa had a more efficient transport infrastructure it would be able to export more effectively to western countries and expand its economy. Lowering the cost of transport, we are told, would reverse the historical flow of wealth. The African economy would develop along the same lines as the carbon-hungry affluent world, but in a sufficiently sustainable way to save the planet. It is a tall order.
The commission warns that climate change is the "one final factor which will obviously be a major influence on Africa's future economic growth". Its weather is becoming more volatile, temperatures are rising, northern and southern latitudes are getting drier, threatening agriculture, and rising sea levels raise the spectre of floods and the loss of low-lying arable land. The commission says developed countries should therefore "help African countries adapt to the risks of climate change".
The only practicable and equitable solution to climate change is the Global Common Institute's framework proposal, Contraction and Convergence. A key element is the trading of carbon- emission rights. Carbon-profligate countries will have to buy unused allocations from more carbon-thrifty ones, such as those in Africa.
Tony Blair and the Commission for Africa mistakenly believe that more road building will enable Africa's economy to prosper. However, reducing transport costs will, as the commission acknowledges, greatly increase traffic volumes, thereby worsening climate change. And Africa will experience some of its most severe impacts.
Contraction and Convergence changes the direction of policy from aid for road building to payments to the poor of Africa for their unused carbon rations. This process will enable the African economy to develop, but in a uniquely African way. The affluent west can and should repay some of the wealth it has stolen from Africa. Funding for healthcare, HIV prevention, education and security is urgently needed. But Africa does not need the crumbs from the white man's carbon banquet to build more roads.
· Ian Roberts is a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
· Mayer Hillman is a senior fellow at the Policy Studies Institute and the author of How We Can Save the Planet